The iPhone is arguably the device that brought smartphones into the mainstream, but it took Apple several years to become the number one phone maker in North America. There was no Samsung Galaxy to contend with at the time, but a company that sold smartphones that looked much more like a tiny laptop. But, let's go further back in time...

In 1996, a relatively unknown Canadian company called Research in Motion (also known as "RIM") released the Inter@ctive Pager 900, a two-way beeper that could be seen as a more compact alternative to the brick-style cell phones of that era.

The device also had email capabilities. It offered a screen made of 132 x 65 pixels, a PC-like QWERTY keyboard and a mouse-like scroll wheel. The improved 950 model was later renamed BlackBerry as its keyboard resembled the fruit.

The first BlackBerry phone came later in 2002, called the 5810, the device actually required a headset to work as a phone. A year later, did RIM release a device that looked like a phone with the Quark series. Among its specifications were a black-and-white display of 160 x 100 pixels, 2 MB of RAM, and 16 MB of storage. Its main competition was the Palm Treo series.

The BlackBerry 7000 series added color and higher resolutions (240 pixels wide) later that year. The Bluetooth-supporting Charm series, with a narrower and sharper 260 x 240 display, was a true competitor to cell phones of 2004, which had become far more compact.

Back then, most cell phones used predictive text technologies such as T9, with each of the number keys representing 3 or 4 letters in an alphabetical order, and the * key was used for scrolling between word suggestions.

RIM found a middle ground with SureType technology: each key represented 2 letters, retaining the QWERTY layout and greatly improving prediction accuracy, with the scroll wheel allowing more intuitive scrolling.

Those who missed the full keyboard got the Electron series in 2005, with a wider 320 x 240 screen and support for MP3 ringtones. Part of its success could be attributed to the new BlackBerry Messenger app. The addictive nature of mobile messaging helped coin the term CrackBerry.

The following year, the Windows Mobile-based Motorola Q series joined the competition. In Europe, Nokia's Eseries started featuring QWERTY keyboards. Phones with keyboards had clearly become a status symbol among businesspeople.

Later in 2006, the SureType-based Pearl series replaced the scroll wheel with a trackball for mouse-like navigation, and added a camera, a media player and multimedia messaging. In 2007, the Curve series combined the trackball with a full keyboard. Both of these models were among the first to hit the mainstream for BlackBerry, solidifying their position in the mobile market.

First of Its Type: The Messaging Wildcard

BlackBerry phones existed in an era when text messaging via SMS was extremely popular and the transition had not yet taken place to today's prominent messaging applications like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or iMessage.

BBM or BlackBerry Messenger was a highly relevant and popular messaging platform in many countries - and in some places it was simply the norm. BBM was exclusively available on BlackBerry devices, which made it a unique selling point for the brand. This exclusivity helped strengthen the BlackBerry community, as users had to own a BlackBerry device to be part of this messaging network (users found each other in the network using a "PIN" number).

BBM was among the first messaging platforms to offer real-time delivery and read receipts, which allowed users to know when their messages had been delivered and read by others. Compared to SMS texts, BBM was also more cost-effective as you didn't get charged by the message. Often, BlackBerry data plans sold through carriers were charged as a flat fee for unlimited email, messaging and other internet features.

Out of Touch

Released in 2007, the iPhone was a strong competitor with its "huge" 3.5-inch multi-touch screen that allowed zoom control via pinching, but it wasn't enough to bring BlackBerry's demise. At first, the iPhone was exclusive to the newly rebranded AT&T carrier, making the switch harder for many users. In addition, many people still wanted a physical keyboard, which was more accurate than a touchscreen for blind typing.

Perhaps most importantly, RIM employed high encryption standards years before they were present in other phones. That made BlackBerry devices attractive for corporate and government use. President Obama famously used a BlackBerry phone during his 2008 election campaign.

RIM made two parallel attempts to compete with the iPhone in 2008: the first was the Bold series, which was made of more expensive materials and had higher specifications than the Curve. Both series replaced the trackwheel with an optical trackpad in 2009. The second was the Storm, RIM's first touchscreen device, which failed miserably on both concept and execution.

The Storm differentiated itself from the iPhone with SurePress technology: instead of simply tapping the on-screen buttons, you'd need to actually press them. While good against accidental tapping, that meant that the on-screen keyboard had neither the speed of a touchscreen nor the accuracy of physical keys. In addition, the screen only had one pressure sensor, in the middle of the device, so the screen wasn't evenly sensitive.

The Storm sold 1 million units within 40 days, and the vast majority of them were replaced by Verizon, the model's exclusive carrier, for problems with the pressure sensor. Many of the replacement units had to be replaced as well for the same reason. Not only that, but the device suffered from software bugs for months after release.

The Storm 2, released in 2009, avoided most of the original's problems with 4 piezoelectric pressure sensors at the corners of the screen and more mature software. It also had Wi-Fi, unlike the original. By the end of the year, RIM controlled 43% of smartphone market in the US, compared to Apple's 25%, Microsoft's 16%, and Google's 7%.

The year 2010 was a turning point in the mobile market. Apple launched the iPhone 4, with a thinner body, a quadrupled 960 x 640 resolution, and a front-facing camera. At the same time, devices like the Samsung Galaxy S and HTC Desire turned Android into a respectable iPhone alternative, and touchscreen phones into the norm.

RIM couldn't compete with a touchscreen-only device of its own. The BlackBerry Torch 9800, launched that year, looked similar to the Storm models at first sight, but had a sliding keyboard and no SurePress. After peaking at almost 22 million around September 2010, the number of BlackBerry users in the US started declining. Globally, the brand kept growing thanks to expanding into developing markets such as Indonesia.

In April 2011, about a year after the first iPad, RIM released its first and only tablet: the BlackBerry PlayBook, with a 7" screen, the ability to record and play (through HDMI) 1080p video, and uniquely for a mobile device, full Adobe Flash support.

The tablet was criticized for relying on a BlackBerry phone for native email and calendar apps, and only sold well after steep discounts. Around that time, the iPhone had surpassed BlackBerry to become the most popular smartphone in the US.

Among the most iconic BlackBerry phone models that hit the mainstream we could mention the BlackBerry Pearl 8100 (2006), BlackBerry Curve 8300/8900 (2007/2009), BlackBerry Storm 9500 (2008), BlackBerry Bold 9700 (2009), BlackBerry Torch 9800 (2010) and BlackBerry Bold Touch 9900 (2012).

Systematic Problems

Although the number of global BlackBerry subscribers were reaching a record high of 80 million around 2011, this was mostly thanks to high demand for RIM's older phones in Africa and the Middle East. In other markets the writing was on the wall, and competing handsets were slowly but surely taking over.

In the summer of 2011, RIM laid off 2,000 workers, or about 10% of its workforce. Months later, in October, the BlackBerry Internet Service suffered its worst-ever outage, leaving millions of users around the world without the ability to send emails or BBM messages for days. That same month, RIM announced its plan to release phones with a new operating system based on QNX - like the BlackBerry Tablet OS used by the PlayBook - rather than the aging BlackBerry OS.

Later on, RIM announced that the new system would be called BlackBerry 10 rather than BBX as planned, due to a copyright infringement ruling. Soon after that, the company delayed the new BB10 phones from early 2012 to the second half of that year. As a result, the RIM stock crashed to its lowest value since 2004.

At the same time, the rise of cross-platform messaging apps like WhatsApp were quickly diminishing BBM's relevance. Users were quickly moving away from BlackBerry devices and RIM didn't react quickly enough to open BBM up to competing platforms Android and iOS. By the time they did, it was too late for the messenger app.

By January 2012, RIM co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie had resigned from their executive roles. In June 2012, the new CEO, Thorsten Heins, announced that BlackBerry 10 phones were to be delayed again, to January 2013 (that release finally panned out).

The first BlackBerry 10 phones were the Q10, with a QWERTY keyboard, and the Z10, which had no physical button on the front, instead relying on gestures for navigation somewhat similar to what Apple did with the iPhone X in late 2017. The BlackBerry Z10's virtual keyboard would show word suggestions above the letters you would have typed to write those words. With the new system's launch, RIM had officially changed its name to BlackBerry.

The camera's Time Shift feature would save each photo as a short video, so you could choose your favorite frame, much like Live Photos, introduced by Apple in late 2015. The difference was that it could also recognize faces, so you could do the same for each person within the same photo.

The home screen would show minimized windows of the last 8 apps that you opened, and some of them would turn into widgets. A feature called the Hub would let you reply to messages from all of your communication apps without launching the full app. BBM itself was also improved to include phone and video calls, including screen-sharing.

The new phones didn't sell as expected. At that point, most potential buyers were already Android and iPhone users who needed a strong incentive to switch. Poor marketing was another factor at play, including a Super Bowl commercial that literally only showed what the Z10 couldn't do. In the fall of 2013, the company cut 4,500 more jobs, replacing Heins with John Chen, who has remained BlackBerry's CEO for nearly a decade now.

In September 2014, the company found temporary success with a niche product: the BlackBerry Passport was basically SpongeBob SquarePants reincarnated as a phone, with a 1440 x 1440 screen and a physical keyboard that doubled as a trackpad. The first batch of units was sold out within 2 days with 200,000 pre-orders.

In December 2014, the company released the BlackBerry Classic which combined a 720 x 720 screen and a rectangular keyboard as seen in the Q10 with an independent trackpad and navigation keys like older BlackBerry phones. That was the last flagship phone that ran a BlackBerry-made OS.

Soft Farewell

The BlackBerry Priv, released in 2015, was the company's first Android-based device, with a curved 2560 x 1440 display, a touch-sensitive sliding keyboard, and software enhancements, including the Hub and the DTEK privacy and security management app.

At launch, the Priv ran Android 5.1.1, even though version 6.0 was already available, and was criticized for its high price and software bugs. That was the last phone manufactured by BlackBerry.

In February 2016, BlackBerry fired another 1,000 workers, or 35% of its remaining workforce. In the second half of that year, the company released the DTEK50 and DTEK60, which were modified versions of the Alcatel Idol 4 and 4S by Chinese company TCL. Those were the last phones sold by BlackBerry. With just over 200,000 units sold in Q4, the company's global market share couldn't even be rounded up to 0.1%.

In 2017, TCL released the BlackBerry KeyOne, with a physical keyboard/touchpad and a fingerprint sensor in the Space bar, under the name BlackBerry Mobile. By the end of the year, it had sold 850,000 units. A successor, the Key2, was released the following year, with a new keyboard button called "Speed," which enabled the system's programmable keyboard shortcuts within the apps.

In 2020, it was announced that TCL would stop selling BlackBerry phones when its contract ended that same year.

The Key2 from 2018 was one of the last BlackBerry phones.

In Indonesia, a joint venture named BB Merah Putih released the budget-oriented BlackBerry Aurora, with no physical keyboard in 2017. In India, a company called Optiemus Infracom launched the BlackBerry Evolve and Evolve X in 2018, with a 2:1 aspect ratio, and no off-screen keyboard either. Neither company has released another BlackBerry device.

In 2020, BlackBerry reached an agreement with a startup called OnwardMobility to release a 5G-capable Blackberry phone. The agreement was reportedly canceled in 2022, and OM shut down without ever releasing a product.

BlackBerry is now a software company specializing in security, with more than 3,000 employees under Chen. The QNX operating system that was the basis for BlackBerry 10 is now used in cars. BlackBerry phones, much like smartphones with keyboards, are essentially gone, but the ideas they brought to life still influence the way people use their phones today.

TechSpot's Gone But Not Forgotten Series

The story of key hardware and electronics companies that at one point were leaders and pioneers in the tech industry, but are now defunct. We cover the most prominent part of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.